Pnin is a professor of Russian at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master. Pnin is a tireless lover who writes to his treacherous Liza: "A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do." Pnin is the focal point of subtle academic conspiracies he cannot begin to comprehend, yet he stages a faculty party to end all faculty parties forever.
The novel is also a discourse on history and memory, memories welcomed and forced back. Pnin often remembers the lives and actions of his parents, but the most poignant part of the book, for me, is Pnin's memory of an early love:
"Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin...because , if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one's mind and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood."
Nabokov uses the novel to take shots at a range of things including psychotherapy (waste of time), religion ("...the Greek Catholic Church, that mild communion whose demands on one's conscience are so small in comparison with the comforts it offers."), pretentiousness in art fads ("What did it matter to him that gentle chiaroscuro, offspring of veiled values and translucent undertones, had long since died behind the prison bars of abstract art, in the poorhouse of hideous primitivism?"), American food ("...he ate his vanilla ice cream , which contained no vanilla and was not made of cream."), and the pretentiousness of academe (a hilarious description of research grants for projects such as the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers, and testing ten thousand elementary school students with a Fingerbowl test, the results of which would be "measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.")
Nabokov is sometimes burst-out-laughing funny. For instance when he talks of a Russian language student, "whom somebody had told that by the time one had mastered the Russian alphabet one could practically read ‘Anna Karamzov' in the original." Or the mangling of aphorisms such as the old American saying, "He who lives in a glass house should not try to kill two birds with one stone." And at least once, Nabokov has fun with the reader. In Laughter in the Dark, there is blowsy lead actress in B-movies who glories in the stage name Dorianna Karenina. She says the name was suggested by a boy who committed suicide and when asked if she has ever read Tolstoy, she replies, "Doll's Toy? No. I'm afraid not. Why?". In Pnin, Nabokov refers to the daughter of president of the university spending her summer touring Europe with a very gracious old lady, "Dorianna Karen, famous movie star of the twenties." Coincidence....I think not.
And then there is Nabokov's wonderful descriptive powers:
"Presently all were asleep again. It was pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags."
The presentation of the novel is interesting. It is, for the most part, in the tone of the omniscient author but with insertions from a first-person narrator and then this narrator, who knows Pnin but has a strange relationship with him, takes over the last chapter of the book. Pnin, who thinks he is on the verge of tenure at the university and is even thinking of buying a house, is told by his friend and protector, the president, that he is to be let go because the president is taking a position in another university, and no one will continue to support Pnin. This seems an undignified and sad ending for an essentially good man who has done no one any harm, but the novel ends more hopefully in the description of Pnin driving away: "Then the little blue sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen."
Finally, there is Nabokov's well-known vocabulary which send me scurrying to the dictionary for the following, among others:
carrel: small cubicle for reader in library
vernalization: cooling of seed before planting to accelerate flowering
skiagrapher: someone who shades in drawing
quoin: external angle of a building; stone or brick forming angle; internal corner of room
tumefy: cause to swell, inflate, be inflated
glabella: smooth part of the forehead above the eyebrows
rill: small stream, runnel, rivulet
purl: flow with swirling motion and babbling sound
Pnin, a short, absurd novel, is the story of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a minor assistant professor of Russian at the fictional college of Waindell. Pnin, morose, clumsy, full of half-fancies and sentimental notions, is a most unfortunate person. His entire life, as a Russian émigré in the United States, is so full of misadventures. After a particularly miserable episode involving a missed bus, the wrong train, misplaced lecture notes and an unhelpful baggage attendant, Pnin finally has a bout of good luck in getting a lift to his distant destination. The narrator, an unidentified voice who appears to know Pnin, is forced to confess that ideally, Pnin would meet with disaster en route to secure the integrity of the story, but Pnin reaches safely. This is possibly his only stroke of good luck.
Nabokov’s device of the narrator in this novel is fascinating. The novel begins in third person, until abruptly, the voice of the narrator is revealed as a character in the novel – someone who evidently knows Pnin. Hemon, in his comments, is asked by an editor at the New Yorker, about this – apparently it is intended to be Nabokov himself. Indeed, someone does refer to the narrator as Vladimir Vladimirovich during the novel. Through the novel’s chapters, as Pnin stumbles from vacation to work, from his estranged wife to his estranged sun to students and to sentimental memories of his Russian youth, we get no more indications of who the narrator is, until the last chapter, when the voice is entirely revealed. Pnin, who moves from being an entirely awkward professor, there at the behest of the kind head of the German department, transforms into someone who at the very least, is settled into university life. The novel ends, though, as Pnin’s adventures do, with him fleeing the university, driven out by the narrator (although I won’t tell you how).
Pnin is an intensely funny novel. True, it is sad as well, but for the most part, this is Nabokov’s deliciously cutting send-up of everything that concerns Russian émigrés and American universities. I can’t speak for the former, but when it comes to the latter, I can vouch for the fact that every hilarious, mocking episode concerning the politics of university appointments, the travails of researchers and graduate students and the dull faculty parties are all accurately, cruelly and amusingly reproduced. Zadie Smith attempted something like this in On Beauty, but Smith isn’t even a tenth of the writer Nabokov was, in my opinion. Take, for instance, Nabokov’s examples of outrageous grants gifted to scholars at the university: “Tristam W Thomas (“Tom” to his friends), Professor of Anthropology had obtained ten thousand dollars from the Mandeville Foundation for a study of the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers…”.
Poor Pnin, left by his wife, fascinated by washing machines, reciting obscure Russian folk poetry to graduate students in entry-level Russian courses – I grew fond of Pnin, too soon. The book is full of charming little character sketches (one of the many things that I love about Nabokov) – for instance, “…I never cared much for Bolotov and his philosophical works, which so oddly combine the obscure and trite; the man’s achievement is perhaps a mountain but a mountain of platitudes; I have always liked, however, Varvara, the philospher’s exuberant buxom wife..” I know I’m a devoted Nabokov fan, so this is expected, but I give this work an unreserved recommendation. It’s funny, it’s well-written and it is by Nabokov, and of these three, the last alone ought to suffice!
Ps. On a purely facile note, I discovered through Hemon’s podcast that I’ve been pronouncing Nabokov’s name incorrectly all my life. He stresses the middle syllable, while I’ve been stressing the first.
It is Nabokov's intense development of this one character that takes up the entire book. Other characters are present but they really don't matter. It's Pnin that this book is about. You get to know him intimately, but find that you really don't know him at all. There is no shortage of characters that take advantage of him and his many shortcomings help to spell out his predicament.
As the story begins, he is on his way to give a speech to a ladies' group in a nearby town. So like the character we come to know, he gets on the wrong train and needs to constantly assure himself that he has his speech in his pocket, and his awkwardness among others becomes apparent.
The love of his life has dumped him for another, more suitable husband, a "genius" but Pnin will take her back, no questions asked and under any circumstances. He is preparing to leave France and emigrate to the United States when Liza shows up again. "He was halfway through the dreary hell that had been devised by European bureaucrats for holders of that miserable thing, the Nansen passport, when one damp April day in 1940 there was a vigorous ring at his door and Liza tramped in, puffing and carrying before her like a chest of drawers a seven month pregnancy."
He is totally oblivious of his strange characteristics and has no idea that his colleagues at the college ridicule him but all of this make him that much more sympathetic and you can't help but like him. Highly recommended.
It is quickly obvious, however, that there is a lot more to the story and to the character of Pnin then the comic story might lead us to believe. His past is only on occasion discussed directly, but it is intrusive. Part of Pnin's humor is that he is a "fish out of water," so to speak (not to mention that he follows in the long tradition of the academic with his head in the clouds, as in Aristophanes' play). Yet, the memories of his past, frequently tragic, are a constant reminder that there is an environment in which he does fit more naturally. Not only does it flesh out his character with detail, it makes us take him seriously. Right from the offing, we are not merely laughing at Pnin, but aching for him at the same time. As a result, we are constantly invested in Pnin, we feel protective of him, even as we enjoy the book's charms. As a consequence, the novel works superbly as a character sketch, instead of just a comedy built on a cliche.
The stories are also wonderfully and subtly constructed. Take, for example, the third story. Pnin has been a lodger in a local home (with the family of another Waindell College Professor), and the early parts of the story focus on Pnin's frustration with having to return a library book that has been recalled before it is due (as a fellow academic, I could sympathize!). Yet, it is clear to the reader that other things are a foot with his lodging arrangements, which will obviously come to a head before the end of the story. Nabokov is able to make us aware of this whilst still making the story ostensibly one about Pnin's trip to the library. This comes off beautifully, as we are privy to Pnin's clueless behavior without having the narrator keep reminding us of it.
It's also a moving, at times heart-rending novel. The moment, at the end of a disastrous dinner party, when Pnin thinks he has broken a crystal bowl received as a gift is crushing. The moment that follows, when Pnin realizes it is intact, brings palpable relief. It's the simplest of moments, but told as it is, placed in a story as it is, and with a character we care about like Pnin, it sticks with you. I've found that simple moment on my mind, over a week since I read it.
The novel is also, as we would expect from Nabokov, brilliantly written. It is difficult for me to describe his prose without simply layering on supleratives, so instead I will just quote a pair of passages that reflect his eloquence and playfulness so well:
"Doffing his spectacles, he rubbed with the knuckles of the hand that held them his naked and tired eyes and, still in thought, fixed his mild gaze on the window above, where, gradually, through his dissolving meditation, there appeared the violet-blue air of dusk, silver-tooled by the reflection of the fluorescent lights of the ceiling, and, among the spidery black twigs, a mirrored row of bright book spines" (56).
"On the distant crest of the knoll, at the exact spot where Gramineev's easel had stood a few hours before, two dark figures in profile were silhouetted against the ember-red sky. They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from the road whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau, or Nina Bolotov and young Poroshin, or merely an emblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin's fading day" (101).
The latter passage is particularly brilliant, with the way it moves seamlessly between the narrative and the meta-narrative, with the delightful pun about the "last page," as this is the final sentence of this particular story.
Pnin is fun and it is beautiful, and I recommend it without reservation to any reader.
I am in awe of Nabokov's prosaic style. Just as I start to grow wary of the flowery prose and overabundance of large words, he throws in a hilariously funny sentence or paragraph, recharging my will to keep on reading. What a master!
To fully enjoy the text one has to have read both Nabokov's autobiography Speak, memory and Brian Boyd's two volumes on Nabokov. Pnin is clearly modeled on Nabokov's own experiences, although the author places subtle hints that he is not Pnin until he is practically shouting "I am not Pnin!" in the final chapter, the weakest of the seven. Abhorred by Freudian interpretations (which would trouble Nabokov even more in the case of Lolita) and overwhelmed by the public success of this unflattering alter ego, Nabokov inserts himself which results in a Kindsweglegung, a disavowal of his own creation, and an unsatisfying end.
First, the positives: Nabokov’s writing is intelligent and beautiful, and if you highly value great prose form, you will likely enjoy this book. It was hard to pick a single example of this, but here’s one, the end chapter four: “Presently all were asleep again. It was a pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags.’” Have a look at the quotes below for further samples.
Nabokov is also funny, subtly so in various references, in the oftentimes pathetic antics of Pnin, and in plays on words, e.g. “’Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?’ (Oh, punster Pnin!)”
Chapter five, and in particular part five of that chapter, is brilliant, with Pnin reminiscing in the park after a dinner party about a past love lost to him in the Russian Revolution, and then to the world in the Holocaust.
On a minor note, I also personally enjoyed how the Russian literature tradition was honored, with references to Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Gogol.
However, the book was uneven, at least in terms of holding my interest. Chapter three which follows Pnin through his research was a snooze. The mundane activities of the intelligentsia may be portrayed accurately, but they're sometimes boring. Nabokov’s writing style is languid, erudite, and at times compelling, but too often wants passion and action.
On the children of immigrants:
“…Pnin saw her for the first time at one of those literary soirees where young émigré poets, who had left Russia in their pale, unpampered pubescence, chanted nostalgic elegies dedicated to a country that could be little more to them than a sad stylized toy, a bauble found in the attic, a crystal globe which you shake to make a soft luminous snowstorm inside over a miniscule fir tree and a log cabin of papier mache.”
“I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion.”
And this one, on the Holocaust:
“One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind…”
On the lovers and wives of Russian authors:
“Turgenev … was made by the ugly, but adored by him, singer Pauline Viardot to play the idiot in charades and tableaux vivants, and Madam Pushkin said: ‘You annoy me with your verses, Pushkin’ – and in old age – to think only! – the wife of colossus, colossus Tolstoy liked much better than him a stooped moozishan with a red noz!”
“The seemed to live at The Pines on a physical and mental plane entirely different from that of their parents: now and then passing from their own level to ours through a kind of interdimensional shimmer; responding curtly to a well-meaning Russian joke or anxious piece of advice, and then fading away again; keeping always aloof (so that one felt one had engendered a brood of elves)…”
I could well relate to the hapless Pnin's [SPOILER, sort of:] professional demise at the end of the book. Nabokov makes it clear that, despite his often hilarious versions of English phrasing and pronunciation, Pnin knows his own language--as well as French--to perfection and is more a true scholar than any of the middlebrow Americans who surround him. Pnin's fine sensitivities are conveyed through trivial events that motivate weighty emotional recollections as, for example, a brief mention of his 1st love. All major events are presented obliquely, and so we discover in passing that Mira met an untimely end in a Nazi death camp.
The displacement of such past griefs in the new life of affluent, optimistic America is one of the book's fine achievements. Nothing is resolved as Pnin drives off into the sunset, having absorbed--we may believe, if we wish--his own measure of optimism.
But wait! At one point Pnin himself tells us not to believe a word the narrator is saying about him! But why not?! Well, fellow reader, because the further joys of this wonderful novel will only be had by re-reading it and coming to a second deeper level of understanding that Nabokov has artfully hidden among the enjoyable words we have already read. This novel provides enjoyment in full and is another example of Nabokov at his mature best.
That said, I must confess that this was not an easy work to read. There were many times when I wondered whether it was my lack of concentration, my inability to connect the dots, or simply my lack of intelligence. Don’t be dismayed if Pnin leaves you without a clue. Stylistically speaking, I assume that you’ll quite agree with me: Nabokov (properly pronounced naBOkuv, by the way) is sui generis. But where the integrity of this particular work is concerned, I’m at a loss.
And so, let’s instead take a look at Nabokov’s style.
The first paragraph of Chapter 3 gives us this delicious little characterization of the eponymous hero of our novel:
“During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings – for one reason or another, mainly sonic – about every semester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody. The rooms of his Waindell period looked especially trim in comparison with one he had had in uptown New York, midway between Tsentral Park and Reeverside, on a block memorable for the wastepaper along the curb, the bright pat of dog dirt somebody had already slipped upon, and a tireless boy pitching a ball against the steps of the high brown porch; and even that room became positively dapper in Pnin’s mind (where a small ball still rebounded) when compared with the old, now dust-blurred lodgings of his long Central-European, Nansen-passport period” (p. 44).
Or — much later in the novel — say, at a point at which we might have a slight craving for an academic’s inside (and somewhat sardonic) observations on the animal instincts of other tillers (i.e., colleagues) in the fields of academe, we have the following:
"'He received a grant of ten thousand dollars,' said Joan to Betty, whose face dropped a curtsy as she made that special grimace consisting of a slow half-bow and tensing of chin and lower lip that automatically conveys, on the part of Bettys, a respectful, congratulatory, and slightly awed recognition of such grand things as dining with one's boss, being in Who's Who, or meeting a duchesse" (p. 115).
When I read the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, the word “gossamer” comes to mind. I don’t know why, but it does. The man had a deftness and dexterity with the language that few native speakers/writers possess — and this alone makes his work well worth reading.
Also, I catalogued this as Russian Literature. I know he wrote this in English while n America. Still.
The book's eponymous protagonist, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a Russian-born professor living in the United States. Pnin, a refugee from both Communist Russia and what he calls the "Hitler war", is an assistant professor of Russian at fictional Waindell College, possibly modeled on Wellesley College or Cornell University, at both of which Nabokov himself taught. At Waindell, Pnin has settled down to an uncertain, nontenured, but semi-respectable academic life, full of various tragicomic mishaps, misfortunes, and difficulties adjusting to American life and language.
As a representative of the "campus" novel it compares favorably with those of Randall Jarrell, David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury. Its pastoral campus setting is very much a "small world" (title for one of Lodge's novels)removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It is the perfect setting for the precise observations that Nabokov is so good at rendering. The postmodern characteristics add an intellectual sheen to this campus story and at close reading raise questions about the nature of the narrator, Professor Pnin, and the status of the fiction itself. Whether memoir or fiction, autobiographical or imaginary flight of academic fancy, this novel charms the reader with the Nabokovian magic that is unique in twentieth-century literature.
I've heard a lot about how this book shows the "warmer" side of Nabokov, but for me the central character never came into focus. I guess this book is more lighthearted and pleasant than a lot of Nabokov, but I think those qualities -- along with everything else -- come across better in the books he put more passion into, even if they're darker in an overall sense.
You cannot help but laugh, as pitiful and lonesome as Pnin is. You might spend a few pages laughing at him, but then V.N. knocks you over with a sad melancholy fragment, and then you feel very guilty. You were laughing at Stoner.
Pnin concerns the exploits of Timofey Pnin, an emigre Russian scholar who has landed up in one of Nabokov's fictional, leafy American campuses. It is, in this regard, a campus novel; a satirical sketch of the life of an emigre involved in the campus politics of the 1940s. Nabokov treats Pnin with sympathy and humour, yet despite this study of a single man he fleetingly returns to emigre circles in Paris and Berlin, reminding the reader of his Russian language work 'Dar' (The Gift). His sketch of a summer gathering in north eastern America, among exiled scholars, painters, soldiers and thinkers, is a particularly powerful essay on exile; depicting an older generation who continue to take black tea and jam, the Russian way, and of their children who are Americanised, who would rather consume processed fare.
Gradually, Pnin recedes into the distance as the narrator, a man whom Pnin professes an intense dislike to, comes to the fore; this man represents a different voice, at once more confident and more historically literate -he can survey back into Pnin's St Petersburg past, which is something Pnin himself cannot manage (memories of Russia, for him, bring tears. We only see him watching a film in a busy lecture hall, and this is all).
Pnin offers a very unique contribution to the experience of exile among the Russian intelligentsia; unlike 'Dar' it is less esoteric, and does not engage with the Russian intellectual past as heavily. It has some of the melancholy of Ivan Bunin's short stories, and the generational and cultural fragmentation of Berberova's 'The Accompanist'. It is humourous, at times extremely witty, yet retains Nabokov's melancholy in exile. But it is not a pessimistic novel in whole. Here we have Nabokov working out a literary place for a character who, at first, seems only ridiculous; Nabokov's skill is in making us care for this ridiculous man.